Dylan Lewis

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Dylan Lewis

Dylan Lewis’s journey from animal to human form

Over the past several years Dylan Lewis has become increasingly aware of the significance of wilderness to the human psyche and has been exploring the idea of co-existing internally and externally, free and untamed wild spaces. This has led to his desire to deepen the animal-human interface in his work, and in early 2009 he began to explore the male figure for the first time in his career. Immediately, the sculptor experienced a sense of simpatico previously unknown to him, and understood this to be a symbolic and personal rite of passage in terms of his artistic and philosophical journey. Since then he has launched himself into a passionate exploration of stylised movement in both male and female figures: a dynamic integration of human, animal and earth, held together by ancient animistic belief, myth and ritual.

Lewis’s male forms are in direct association with the animal spirit and life force embodied in the animal skull masks they wear. Animal skulls and animal body parts have been an important part of human ritual for over 50 000 years, embodying the notion of the protection of life. The history of animal masks stretches back that long too, with masks having remained an integral part of humankind’s search for macro- and micro-cosmos.

In becoming one with their animal masks and features, Lewis’s new humans fleetingly reconnect with that which humankind lost in expelling our wild nature from our essential selves in order to define ourselves as ‘human’. The transformation is a connection with and celebration of the vital energy, life force and spirit of all that is truly ‘wild’.

This curiously elevated and almost spring-coiled, cross-legged figure suggests inherent physical flexibility and playfulness, as well as the counterpoint: explosive, internal struggle. Its features are reminiscent of the archetypal horned god found in several ancient mythologies, the most well-known of which must be the Greek, where he is Pan.

The horns here are symbols of male potency, strength and protection. In no way is Pan associated with later Christian depictions of Satan. Instead, he is a force of nature, neither entirely benevolent nor malevolent. In ancient Greek, “Pan” means “all”, and Pan was the exemplary anthropomorphic deity, a personification of the genetic force of life and a sacred guarantee of the continuance of that life on earth. The human/mythical allusion here deepens when one considers that Pan was abandoned by his mother at birth: Lewis’s comment, perhaps, on mankind’s severance with mother earth, for here the Pan-like figure is rendered in ochre-coloured patina.

Since the middle Palaeolithic period at least, red and ochre have been seen as the colour of blood and thus symbolic of life. They have been universally used ritualistically to protect against evil influence and to evoke ritual rebirth and return to the earth. In South Africa, a tribe called the amaQwati, who were absorbed into the Xhosa nation in the mid-1800s, were known as the ‘Red People’: they wore red ochre to symbolise their adherence to their original animistic ancestral beliefs, and as a badge of their defiant refusal to adopt a new religion that would sever their spiritual umbilical cord to the earth.

The most striking feature of this male figure is the lion mask it wears. The lion is one of the most widely recognised animal symbols in human culture, dating back 32 000 years. Its most immediate connotation is strength, but it also conveys courage, power, dignity, justice and wisdom.

The enormity of the forward-striving male form conjures a Sisyphus-like figure. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus violated natural codes and the great natural order, and thus was sentenced by the gods to eternal hard labour. His punishment was to roll an enormous boulder up to the top of a hill, only then to have it roll back down again, for eternity. Forever caught in futile, back-breaking labour, Sisyphus is a metaphor for the human condition. However, the great philosopher Albert Camus held that the toil and the fate of Sisyphus are not futile, as they may seem. He explained that the nature of the struggle towards the heights of life itself is enough to fill a man’s heart, and that the struggle is cause for happiness. Sisyphus achieves an emotional victory when he learns to love the rock he is pushing repeatedly up the mountainside.

Lewis’s work suggests that there is a great nobility and even joy to be found in striving to connect with our wild past and origins both internally and externally: to attempt to reconnect with the abandoned Pan within, even if that end remains forever elusive.

Laura Twiggs

Dylan Lewis Rooi Plein

Coiled, huge, naked, untamed and masked, this powerful image draws attention to and honours the wild underpinnings of human nature – a reminder that we are biologically bound in a web of life to all living things and that we are a part of Nature. Sharing a common bloodline with all mammals, I cannot think of a better reason to describe what could be called our ‘God-given’ sense of love and affiliation to the animal world. The animals are in our blood and in our psyche. Who and where would we be without them?

Sadly, we have confused wildness – that which is raw, spontaneous and fierce – with savagery and violation. Because of this we demean it, we suppress it and yet, we miss it. We miss the wildness of our unlived lives and to me this is precisely what Lewis portrays in his animal-human forms. It is a fact – we can learn a lot about ourselves from the wild. And yes, art can be disturbing but if it is aimed at helping us to restore our lost sense of balance with Nature, then surely, we need to be willing to be disturbed.

Ian McCallum

Ineengestrengel, massief, nakend, ongetem en met ’n masker – so vereer hierdie beeld, en vestig dit die aandag op, die wilde oerkrag van die menslike aard. Dit is ook ’n herinnering daaraan dat ons deur ’n biologiese web met alle lewensvorme verbind word en dat ons werklik “deel van die natuur” is. Omdat ons ’n bloedlyn deel met alle soogdiere kan ek nouliks dink aan ’n beter oorreding as dat ons juis ’n Godgegewe liefde en affiliasie met die diereryk gegee is. Diere is in ons bloed, in ons psige; hoe en waar sou ons sonder hulle wees?

Dis tragies dat ons hierdie wildheid wat rou, spontaan, selfs kwaai is, verwar met skending en barbaarsheid. So verklein en onderdruk ons die wildheid, en tog, so mis ons dit ook. Dit is vir my presies wat Lewis in sy vorms van mens-dier verbeeld – ’n gemis aan hierdie wildheid in ons ongeleefde lewens. Dit is ’n feit dat ons baie van onsself uit die wilde natuur kan leer. En, ja, kuns kan baie ontstellend wees. Maar as dit daarop gemik is om ons te help om weer ’n sin vir balans te herwin, dan moet ons tog bereid wees om ontstel te word.

Ian McCallum

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